Ruth vs. Bonds vs. Trout: How the greatest season ever could be happening in 2018

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

In the middle of last week, when it looked as though he had run the jewels on Thanos, scrammed with the Infinity Gauntlet and took to wearing it as a batting glove, one of baseball’s longest-standing questions finally had its answer: What happens when Mike Trout, the best baseball player of his generation, plays the best baseball of his life? It was, as with everything Trout does, far more of an objective marvel than something even the keenest eye could see. He felt like … Mike Trout. Which is to say that he looked better than everyone else on the field, same as he has since 2012.

The argument in favor of Trout, compared to his contemporaries as well as his forebears, always emanates from that objective place. It argued (rightly) that he should have won the American League MVP award in 2012 and 2013. It argued (rightly) that he is without peer today and with but a few in history. And as Trout got on base 28 times over a 36-plate appearance stretch last week, reached his baseball apotheosis and poured napalm on an already-incandescent season, it argued that he is on pace for what could be the greatest year ever.

This is a difficult case to make, seeing as Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds played baseball. And it’s particularly complicated because it’s impossible to say definitively, and difficult to even estimate, exactly how much Ruth benefitted from playing before integration or Bonds thrived due to the performance-enhancing drugs he took. Which leaves us with numbers – numbers that, for all of the effort put into accurately comparing 1923, 2001 and 2018, are potentially flawed enough themselves to bring into question the entire exercise.

First, introducing the seasons Trout is aiming to dethrone. The greatest ever, as judged by the metric Wins Above Replacement, is Ruth’s in 1923. The best offensive season may belong to Ruth, too, but everything Bonds did from 2001-2004 could arguably exceed it. And because it’s the highest-ranked year in history by the metric adjusted batting runs, and because he hit a record 73 home runs in it, and because teams weren’t yet inflating his on-base percentage through intentional walks, Bonds’ 2001 season is a formidable candidate as the other comparable.

And with that set, let us begin to adjudicate the case of …

Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout is in the running for having the greatest season ever, passing Babe Ruth in 1923 and Barry Bonds in 2001. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

1. Mike Trout vs. Barry Bonds vs. Babe Ruth and judge whether Trout really is almost halfway to the greatest season ever.

Let’s start with their triple-slash line of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage – the three best classic representatives of a player’s offensive value.

2018 Trout: .325/.461/.661
2001 Bonds: .328/.515/.863
1923 Ruth: .393/.545/.764

The difference is noticeable, and even when adjusted for era, Bonds and Ruth’s numbers are well ahead of Trout’s. Seeing as Trout’s OPS would be the best in baseball since Bonds last played, it reinforces the stratospheric levels at which baseball has been played. Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds are the two greatest offensive forces ever, and Trout understands even greatness does not a usurper make.

The pace Ruth and Bonds set is so beyond comprehension that even a bad weekend can turn Trout from ahead to behind. In his most recent four games, against a Toronto Blue Jays staff that has allowed the eighth-most runs in baseball, Trout went 2 for 14 with seven strikeouts and three walks. Thanos stole back the gauntlet, and even if Trout continued to play in this otherworldly fashion, it still wouldn’t be enough to pass Ruth’s WAR.

Which, it should be noted, still would warrant infinite hosannas and a unanimous MVP vote. And, truth be told, may actually still make a good best-season-ever case because there is something awfully curious about Ruth’s WAR total in 1923 – something that we’ll explain soon enough. First, though, from one battle involving a Los Angeles Angel to another: When it comes to …

2. Shohei Ohtani vs. Time, or any pitcher vs. it, for that matter, Time is undefeated. Right now, as Ohtani awaits a Thursday appointment to examine whether the stem-cell-filled platelet-rich plasma shot he received to help mend a torn elbow ligament is helping or mending, he’s got nothing but time. And even if the news is good, he’ll still be waiting, because one does not leap off the disabled list with a torn elbow ulnar collateral ligament right back into the heart of the order.

Particularly when one also is a pitcher. That’s what so complicates Ohtani’s case. Say the biologic treatment does not take and the tear is not healing. Do the Angels say Ohtani is going to need Tommy John surgery but delay it until the offseason to allow him to provide a desperately needed left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup until then? Do they suggest he gets the surgery now so he can be ready to hit next season while perhaps not pitching at all? Do they shut him down from everything, figuring his arm is the most important of his tools and takes priority over whatever his bat may provide?

Shohei Ohtani awaits a Thursday appointment to examine whether the stem-cell-filled platelet-rich plasma shot he received to help mend a torn elbow ligament is helping. (AP)

And if the news is good, and there is healing, do the Angels allow Ohtani to hit now and hope that the ligament continues to repair itself to the point where he can pitch later in the season, too? Or is it more a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel approach, where the Angels preach patience and conservatism?

The answer to every one of these questions is there is no right answer. There’s only the one that the Angels choose. Maybe that’s the right one, maybe it’s not. They’re in something of an untenable position, in that they’re facing the very same questions Tommy John did in 1974 when Dr. Frank Jobe opened up his elbow and replaced his UCL. What’s the protocol? How do we keep him healthy going forward? Because there hasn’t been a player like Ohtani in a century, there hasn’t been a need for so specialized a rehab.

So he waits – waits, wonders, hopes and looks forward to the imprisonment of injury paroling him and allowing his opponent not to be something inanimate but rather another player, as in the case of …

3. Corey Kluber vs. Max Scherzer and who’s having the better year. Scherzer is the best pitcher in the National League. Kluber can make a case for the same in the AL, though his competition is a touch better. Either way, good luck delineating between the two this season.

Kluber: 16 GS, 111⅔ IP, 78 H, 12 BB, 113 K, 2.10 ERA, .194/.219/.325
Scherzer: 16 GS, 107⅔ IP, 67 H, 24 BB, 161 K, 2.09 ERA, .173/.230/.325

So. Yeah. They’ve allowed almost exactly the same number of baserunners. Their slugging percentage against is exactly the same. They’ve thrown practically the same number of innings. Their ERAs are one-hundredth of a point from each other. It’s absurd.

In Scherzer’s favor: The strikeouts. And, yeah, it’s by a pretty healthy margin, so anyone on Team Scherzer can feel good about that. At the same time, Kluber is doing this in the AL, against lineups with a designated hitter – and an argument can be made that Kluber, with the Indians’ strong defense behind him, stands to benefit more than Scherzer for pitching to contact.

There is no wrong choice. Both are on the 2018 Pitching Rushmore. And they’ve got another half-season of starts to distinguish themselves, much as the …

4. Cleveland Indians vs. Houston Astros matchup to determine who’s got the better starting rotation gets to cook for another three months – with some extra time in October, depending upon how far they go.

For all the talk that the Astros might have the best rotation ever, the Indians are mounting an awfully compelling challenge, particularly with their No. 5 slot finally stable. Kluber is about as good as you can get at No. 1. Trevor Bauer leads the AL in WAR among pitchers, according to FanGraphs. Carlos Carrasco is a consistent 200-strikeout threat and one whale of a No. 3. Mike Clevinger has more than asserted himself in the fourth slot. And rookie Shane Bieber – he of the lifetime 255-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minor leagues – has 22 punchouts in 18⅓ innings over three starts with Cleveland.

Is that better than Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers? Not yet. Not only has the Astros’ rotation not missed a single start this season, its 2.90 ERA is the best in the big leagues, its 10.2 strikeouts per nine are the best in the big leagues and it has logged the most innings in the big leagues.

Now, take out Josh Tomlin’s numbers from the Indians’ starters’ totals, and the ERA drops from 3.30 to 2.97, the strikeout rate spikes from 9.29 to 9.55, the home run rate dips by nearly a quarter of a point and the Indians’ fielding-independent pitching – which tends to correlate with future performance – is actually better than Houston’s.

This is more a don’t-sleep-on-the-Indians point than trying to make the case they’re better than the Astros. They may be. They may not. It’s closer than most recognize. When something becomes conventional wisdom, as seems so in any …

5. Jacob deGrom vs. Noah Syndergaard discussion, it’s typically worth revisiting the opposing perspective to ensure the soundness of the convention.

In this case, it’s: Of course teams would rather have deGrom than Syndergaard. This … this seems quite specious, actually, even as deGrom plows through hitters and Syndergaard spends yet another chunk of a season on the disabled list. Recency bias being what it is, we see deGrom with the NL-best 1.69 ERA, with a 200-inning season last year, with his full arsenal at hand, and it’s easy to deem him more valuable. Truth is, he probably would fetch more on the trade market.

And yet consider: deGrom is 30 years old. He’s got a Tommy John scar on his elbow. He’s going to command upward of $12 million in arbitration next season and perhaps $16 million the season after that. And then he’s a free agent. Syndergaard is 25. He’s not a free agent for another 3½ seasons. He’s got the single best arm in the game. When he pitches, he is every bit as good as, if not better than, deGrom.

That is the sort of guy a team buys: Not one at his absolute peak but one near his nadir. This is why all the talk of dealing Syndergaard seems so ridiculous for the Mets. Dealing a guy who has spent much of the last year and a half on the disabled list simply isn’t good business. If you’re going to trade anyone, it’s deGrom – and even that is an absurd proposition, considering these are not the Kansas City Mets or Oakland Mets or Milwaukee Mets.

These are the New York Mets, emphasis on New York. Here’s how it’s supposed to work there: In New York, you keep your stars and build around them. It’s been long enough since the Bernie Madoff debacle that the Mets no longer can cry poor – and they certainly can’t go trading one or even two of the 10 most talented pitchers in the major leagues to kick off a rebuild that’s entirely unnecessary, even with the ascent of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies and the continued strength of the Washington Nationals.

If it’s a gun-to-your-head question of trade deGrom or Syndergaard, the answer is deGrom. If the stakes are lower and there’s an option C, it’s the right one, because holding onto deGrom and Syndergaard is right, even as they edge toward the classic battle, one being fought now as …

6. Clayton Kershaw vs. Wear and Tear enters the next round. It would’ve been easy to say this was Kershaw vs. Age, but that’s not true. Kershaw is 30. So is deGrom. Kluber is 32, Scherzer 33, Jon Lester 34, Verlander 35. All have been spectacular this season and could make a case to start the All-Star Game.

No, this is about mileage, about dealing with the rigors not just of pitching but pitching at a truly elite level for years and what it can do to a man’s body. Kershaw entered this season with 1,935 innings pitched. Since 1980, around when the five-man rotation took hold, only seven pitchers have thrown more innings through their age-29 season.

• Fernando Valenzuela: Done as an elite pitcher at 25.
• Felix Hernandez: Turned south at 29 and has gone downhill in three subsequent seasons.
• Dwight Gooden: Hung around until his mid-30s, but after 28 it was mostly a mess.
• CC Sabathia: Still chugging along at 37 after weathering a few ugly years. A great success.
• Greg Maddux: An all-time great and total freak who was at least better than average every year from ages 22 to 40.
• Mike Witt: Didn’t even throw 50 innings after his 30th birthday.
• Roger Clemens: Some rough early-30s seasons gave way to a storied – if allegedly steroid-aided – later career.

There are some big hits. And there are some scary misses. Kershaw has been so good throughout his career that the Hall of Fame seems like a gimme, and yet seeing him with as many starts as he has DL stints over the last two months – two apiece – is a reminder of how the body, more than anything, conspires against greatness in baseball.

Kershaw’s first start back was a touch grisly. He’s allowed those. The Dodgers, good as they’ve been without him, have a severely limited shot at returning to the World Series unless Kershaw is Kershaw again – and brings regular-season Kershaw performance to the playoffs. October typically has treated Kershaw with all the rudeness seen in the matchup of …

7. Edwin Jackson vs. Rejection, which Jackson wins every time. The 34-year-old joined the Oakland A’s on Monday, following a career in which he played for the Dodgers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Detroit Tigers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles.

Yes, this makes 13 teams for Jackson, tying the record of longtime reliever Octavio Dotel. Think about that: a dozen times, Edwin Jackson has pitched for a team, and that team, either by trading him, cutting him or not re-signing him, said: It’s not us, it’s you.

And still, Jackson kept making runs. He didn’t care how many times he was dumped and told to find someone else. He always does! Edwin Jackson is a 34-year-old right-hander with a career 4.67 ERA, and he has managed to pitch every season in the major leagues since he arrived on his 20th birthday in 2003. Baseball keeps swiping left, and he swipes right anyway, and eventually there’s a match, and it’s the kind of perseverance known quite well as …

8. J.D. Martinez vs. Giancarlo Stanton plays out here. Martinez was famously cut by the Astros, and now not only is he leading the AL in home runs and RBIs, he’s making the Red Sox look like geniuses for the per-dollar production they’re getting compared to Stanton.

If Martinez keeps playing like this, he’s almost a shoo-in to opt out of his deal after next season, which would make the Red Sox’s commitment two years at $50 million. For arguably the best non-Trout bat in the league, that is closeout prices. Particularly with the Yankees guaranteeing 10 years and $295 million to Stanton and keeping him through his age-38 season when age 28 has been something of a struggle.

Already Stanton has eclipsed 100 strikeouts. The patience that manifested itself last year has disappeared. Stanton still has days like Sunday, when he went 5 for 5 with a walk and raised his OPS 40 points. Even with that it’s still at .853, a good number for most but 150 points lower than last season. And nearly 200 points lower than what Martinez is hitting for the Red Sox.

Considering the standard Martinez set for pending free agents on what a walk year is supposed to look like …

9. Bryce Harper vs. Manny Machado is entering grave-disappointment territory.

There’s really no other way to put it at this point: Harper is getting close to the point where he’s going to be costing himself significant money. He has been that bad. In March and April, he made up for a poor batting average with big on-base and slugging numbers. In May, his on-base percentage joined his batting average, but at least he kept hitting for power. In June, all of it has disappeared in spectacular fashion.

In June, Harper has been worth -.5 WAR, meaning a Triple-A scrub would’ve theoretically been better than him. He is hitting .149/.266/.239. He entered Sunday with one home run and 24 strikeouts in 79 June plate appearances. His season line is now .212/.353/.465. Harper said he’d participate in the Home Run Derby only if he’s an All-Star, and that would be a shame, because it would be fun to see him in the derby, and he’s definitely not an All-Star. Here’s the list of NL outfielders with more WAR than Harper: Lorenzo Cain, Brandon Nimmo, Nick Markakis, Odubel Herrera, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Christian Yelich, Matt Kemp, David Peralta, Starling Marte, Albert Almora, Cody Bellinger, Michael Taylor, Tommy Pham, Corey Dickerson, Marcell Ozuna, Rhys Hoskins, Ender Inciarte and Jason Heyward. That’s 19 players. Of all the players who have qualified for the batting title, Harper ranks 96th of 166 with 1.0 WAR.

Machado’s March and April have sustained him to a similar extent as Harper’s did. His May was better than Harper’s, and his June has been, too, though a .246/.325/.420 line isn’t the stuff of which $400 million deals are made. Teams are going to do everything they can to cherry-pick data and try to force the Machados and Harpers to settle for less money than the market may be willing to pay them.

Neither is at risk of limiting the size of his market. All 30 teams will want Harper. All 30 teams will want Machado. The size of their contracts, though, will indeed depend on how they produce over these final 3½ months, because as …

10. Mike Trout vs. Barry Bonds vs. Babe Ruth illustrates, greatness can be a very objective thing.

And yet here’s the problem with objectivity: Even it can be impossible to prove. Let’s look at that incredible season in 1923 from Ruth. Baseball-Reference breaks out multiple categories to help break down its calculation of WAR, and one of those is dWAR – how much a player helped in the field. Before and after 1923, Ruth never was more than above half a win in dWAR. That season, though, he was worth 1.2 wins.

How do we know this? Not Statcast. No tracking systems. Not even video scouts watching games and inputting data. Baseball Reference and FanGraphs both employ box scores that scour whether a particular play was made and assign credit for involvement. There’s no true sense of just how involved a player was, but that doesn’t stop either from making Babe Ruth in 1923 more valuable defensively than every season from Mike Trout except one.

And … come on. There are outliers, yes, but Ruth playing a corner-outfield spot worth more defensively than Trout in center? It’s absurd, and though the absurdity doesn’t entirely invalidate Ruth’s WAR, it at least opens up the possibility that maybe Trout doesn’t need 14.2 WAR to be the best.

Remember, here is where Trout has the advantage: A number of components comprise WAR, in which everything is translated to runs, added together and divided by around 10 to calculate WAR. There are batting runs, baserunning runs, GIDP runs, fielding runs, positional adjustments and replacement addition. In other words: How good you are at hitting, how much your legs are worth in terms of basestealing and taking extra bases, how few double plays you ground into, how good your glove is, how difficult your position is and a standard number of runs for the simple act of being a big leaguer.

In 2001, Bonds’ bat was absurd, accounting for 116 runs. He also had one run for baserunning, one for grounding into double plays, -5 for fielding and -6 for position. Add 20 for replacement level, and Bonds’ 127 runs above average may be difficult to beat.

Then again, Trout has a major league-best 42 batting runs through 78 games. He’s also got two basrunning, seven fielding, one for positional adjustment and 12 for replacement level. Extrapolate those over the Angels’ final 84 games … and Trout is over 130.

And would that be the best season ever? There’s quite a compelling argument to make that the answer is yes, because while Ruth and Bonds were unparalleled hitters, neither ran particularly well, neither caught the ball particularly well, and baseball is a game that takes into account every contribution in all facets.

So while Trout’s stolen bases or his glove alone doesn’t make up for the 73 home runs Bonds hit, does his three-dimensionality render Bonds’ one-dimensional game lesser, even if that one dimension is so overwhelming? Does Ruth’s glove really invalidate all the other things he did that year, when he was hitting like Bonds, too? Or is that nothing more than a red herring?

Questions begat questions, and they make you want to say: Hey, man, it’s not even July. Chill. Which, fair enough. The halfway point of the season arrives this week, and on the day of Game 81, we can see where Mike Trout is, double it and dream. It’ll a big number, almost certainly over 13, the kind that reminds us just how good he really is, how easy it is to take him for granted, how appreciative the game ought be of what he does – and how even something that’s supposed to be clarify baseball across generations like WAR only makes the debate that much more heated.

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